There are good reasons to think that well-being should be treated as both an end of policy, as well as a means of achieving other policy goals. While the elements of well-being are clearly desirable outcomes in themselves, and arguably the ultimate goals of human endeavour, there is also evidence that targeting specific aspects of positive well-being (e.g., autonomy, emotional well-being) might be an effective way to drive desirable behaviour changes. For instance, a sense of individual autonomy – broadly, the extent to which people feel able to make their own decisions – seems likely to enhance outcomes in a range of areas of traditional policy focus, such as people’s interactions with the education system.
Due to its ‘means and ends’ character, it is possible to identify a number of different uses for regular measures of population well-being. They would enable national governments to:
- To assess change over time
- To review and evaluate policy decisions
- To draw comparisons (e.g. internationally)
- To assess differences between subgroups of the national population
- To identify areas of need or opportunity
- To evaluate the potential impacts of policy proposals
- To shape policy formulation (e.g. content and delivery)
- To inform the targeting of new policy (e.g. by population subgroup)
The policy cycle
The diagram above, taken from our report, shows the ways in which National Accounts of Well-being could be used to achieve this range of goals at different stages of the policy-making process. While the process is deliberately described in generic terms that can apply to policy-making across developed nations, a number of clearly defined roles for the use of well-being indicators emerge at particular points of the process, from defining policy aims and identifying need, developing and shaping policy proposals, implementing and delivering particular policy interventions, to evaluating the impact of policy actions.
Despite the wealth of information within the results of our national accounting indicators, they do not constitute the full picture of national progress. Two other crucial aspects that governments should equally measure to ensure that they are doing the best for their citizens are:
- The external conditions of people’s lives – both indicators monitoring material conditions of individuals’ lives, such as the income-based indicators on which top-line societal measurement has been traditionally focused, as well as factors such as employment status and physical health; and also measures of factors which exist across society such as freedom and government accountability.
- The ecological sustainability of society’s resource use – the degree to which the Earth’s finite resources continue to be available to enable people’s welfare in the future is a crucial issue for governments. Enjoying good experiences today at the cost of substantial pain tomorrow cannot be said to be a mechanism for producing true overall well-being: measures of the ecological sustainability of a society are therefore crucial.
The Canadian statistician Robert Prescott-Allen has specifically addressed the issue of how national indicator sets should best be designed to include measures of subjective well-being alongside measures of welfare from other spheres. The diagram below, taken from the National Accounts of Well-being report, shows an adapted version of one possible structure for national well-being indicators which he has devised. Core measures of human well-being, such as the national well-being accounts presented in this report, are surrounded by measures at society level, such as the economy and governance system through which human well-being is enabled. This human layer of activity exerts pressure on the overall eco-system well-being which is described via measures such as resource use and biodiversity.
This type of multilayered structure of national indicators provides an explicit mechanism for exploring the links between how lives are subjectively experienced and:
- the societal systems within which those lives are embedded
- the ecological system on which the lives ultimately depend.
nef’s Happy Planet Index is an example of an indicator which takes these different aspects and summarises them into an easily communicable indicator of the ecological efficiency with which nations deliver human well-being. However a multilayered national accounting structure of the kind we are proposing would allow the relationships between these elements to be unpacked, so that we better understand how actions within one sphere impact on the others.